H.W. Crocker’s 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church reads like an old fashioned hero epic. For Crocker, the story of the Church is the story of Western Civilization itself, and he relates to his readers vivid accounts of the popes, kings, armies, and nations that made Western Civilization what it is. Always at the center of this civilization, however, is the Catholic Church. It is the one undeniable fact of Western history, the oldest institution in its history. Loved by many, hated by some, but always unrelentingly present for friends and foes alike.
As one might expect, a book dealing with a subject so broad as the history of the Catholic Church contains so many themes as to be far too numerous to discuss here. There are two central themes, however, that deserve mention. The first is Crocker’s assertion that the Church is now and has always been a counter balance to nationalism and to the nation-state. The second is that "progress" as conceived by the modern liberal and socialist mind is an illusion, and that the anti-utopian way of the Church is the only hope against the messianic dreams of the state and its drive to create its own Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
When the early Catholics took control of the Roman Empire, it was an empire in decline. It was not so obvious in Constantine’s day when the first edict of religious toleration in Western History was issued, but by the time of Augustine, the decline was clear. As the empire in the West declined and broke up into smaller barbarian kingdoms, the Church survived to preserve literature, law, and philosophy. To the Christian barbarians, it served as the one unifying cultural factor in the West. Barbarian kings like Charlemagne served as lords of their own realms, but as such, they were only members of a larger realm, the realm of Christendom, not ruled by a king, but by Christ through his vicar the pope. For centuries, governments co-existed with the Church. They were responsible for their own sphere of authority, and kept the peace as best they could. Yet, no true king could be crowned except by a bishop of the Church, and all Christian kings washed the feet of peasants on Holy Thursday.
Needless to say, this system of divided sovereignty did not go unchallenged by the kings of the day. The late medieval era was the age of the state’s struggle against the Church. This struggle is personified most dramatically in Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, and his king, Henry II of England. Crocker presents a vivid and masterful account of one of the central events in the medieval struggle between kings and the Church. Becket, unwilling to yield the Church’s property and the Church’s autonomy to the king, was murdered in his own cathedral by the king’s knights. Bursting into Canterbury Cathedral, the knights demanded, "Where is the traitor?" Becket appeared declaring, "Here I am, no traitor to the King, but a priest of God." Struck down before the altar, Becket was soon afterward declared a Saint, a symbol of the righteousness of defying the arbitrary rule of kings.
The story of Henry and Becket is only part of the rich tapestry woven by Crocker who amply demonstrates that it is no coincidence that the rise of the all-powerful state coincided with the decline of the Church’s political power. The dark age of the Church reached its pinnacle in the late 19th and 20th centuries as nationalism spread and led inevitably to World War, atomic bombs, eugenics, racial extermination, and totalitarianism. In the age of nationalism, socialism, and fascism, the Church found itself in retreat on all fronts. From Mexico to the Soviet Union, the Church was outlawed, priests and bishops were murdered, and the sacraments of the Church became acts of treason performed in basements and attics. Through all of this the Church denied the possibility of reforming human nature, of the "new man" of communism, and affirmed the inherent evil in the modern state and modern war.
It is here that Crocker presents the most challenging argument for the libertarian mind: that liberalism (of all kinds) does not save individual rights, but destroys them and leads to nationalism and war. Crocker examines the Church’s writings on liberalism, socialism, nationalism, fascism, and communism and finds all these ideologies to be destructive to individualism and human dignity. In the twentieth century, the Church attacked these new trends in a number of encyclicals. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the Church attacked the unlimited monopoly of the modern nation-state, the injustice of heavy taxation, and expounded upon the benefits of private property. Leo’s teachings were followed up by a number of other works by his successors condemning mass society and the modern nation-state including Non Abbiamo Bisogno, an anti-fascist encyclical condemning the modern "pagan worship of the state."
The Church recognized that at the heart of all state worship was the concept of "progress." The Church denied that the state could serve any purpose other than helping to secure peace and allowing people to exercise free will. Modern government, on the other hand, declares that government exists to take society from where it is to somewhere wonderful. For the modern ideologue, the state is to create paradise whether it is through abolition of private property, through coerced "equality", or through the "final solution."
For Crocker then, the Church is a medieval institution in a modern world, and for Crocker medievalism is a wonderful thing. The Church’s antagonism thus must be understood within the context of medieval thought. Human liberty and dignity is not maintained through nation-states and what Edmund Burke called "artificial societies", but through limiting power and instituting relationships built on shared sovereignty instead of the modern ideal of national "sovereignty" placed rather laughably in the hands of the imaginary entity known as "the people." Modern liberalism does not allow for such institutions and relationships. Instead, liberalism relies on a variety of artificial mechanisms designed to check government power within the confines of a monopolistic and absolutely sovereign state. The Church never bought this and always asserted that such ideology would lead to mass movement, socialism and war. After a blood-soaked century of attempted democracy, who can deny this?
It is the bloody 20th century that is the crowning achievement of anti-Catholicism, the modern state, and "progress." For the Catholic Church, it is the ideal of progress that brought us the 20th century, and compared to the wars and the murder of millions to make the world safe for democracy, progress and equality, the allegedly dastardly and unforgivable crimes of the Church (i.e., the crusades and the inquisition) seem but mere skirmishes.
For the typical American conservative or libertarian, the arguments against liberalism will seem repulsive at first, but we must ask ourselves why liberalism is supposedly the road to salvation. Liberalism did not invent human rights or limited government. The Church did. The rise of democracy, did, however, produce fascism and communism around half the globe. The message of the Church is clear: Paradise is not attainable in this world, and if it were, the state would not take you there. Perhaps the Church’s view of history closely resembles that of historian Eugen Weber’s view that human history is something like a winding river going nowhere but often bending back on itself and washing over similar territory again and again. For the Church, it is not the duty of a man to save the world, but only to save himself.
Crocker does not try to pass off this book as an unbiased account. It is clear where he stands, and his biases are laid out so plainly as to make the book comically idiosyncratic at times. This "the Catholic Church is so wonderful I can barely stand it" attitude of Crocker is at times chuckle-worthy, and for purposes of expediency, Crocker has no problem with generously employing stereotypes to dismiss Italians as hot-headed anarchists, Byzantines as effeminate bureaucrats, and Jesuits as heroic dragon-slayers. The critical reader, though, will find that this does not take away from the thorough scholarship of this work. This is a book that should be in the home of every Catholic and anyone interested in the undeniably unique and freedom-loving heritage of European civilization.